Three days ago, the president of the United States was credibly accused of rape.
It’s a horrifying statement, and also an unremarkable one. Donald Trump has been publicly accused of some level of sexual misconduct or assault by more than 20 women. Last week, columnist and author E. Jean Carroll joined their ranks. In a gutting essay published in New York Magazine, aptly titled “Hideous Men,” Carroll recounts a violent encounter she had with Trump in the mid-’90s in the dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman department store when she was 52 years old.
She describes how she ran into the 50-year-old real estate tycoon. How he told her he was shopping for a gift. How she accompanied him on that search. How he told her to try on some lingerie he had selected. How she laughed. How he lunged at her. How she laughed again. How he held her against the wall. How he shoved himself inside of her. How she struggled. How she eventually ran out of the dressing room and out of the store and onto 5th Avenue. How she still has the Donna Karan coatdress she was wearing that day hanging in her closet. How she never had sex with anyone ever again after that day.
In response, President Trump told the press that “it’s a false accusation and it’s a disgrace.”
Since Friday, the reaction has predominantly been muted exhaustion, exasperation and despair. The story didn’t even make the front pages of some of the nation’s biggest newspapers ― The New York Times covered the news as a books story. And the big five news networks’ Sunday morning shows largely ignored Carroll’s claims altogether.
The horror of watching the public and media flounder with how to respond to Carroll’s story is about more than one man and his awful and allegedly criminal, violent behavior. It’s about what that floundering says about the culture we all exist in.
Eighteen months of national dialogue about sexual abuse and the bad behavior of powerful men (and a few powerful women) should be enough for anyone to understand that sexual violence is normal in our culture. But watching that validated in the highest chambers of power ― the presidency, the Supreme Court ― has been particularly devastating.
“In Trump’s world, women are objects ― objects that only hold a value based on how physically attractive he personally finds them to be,” I wrote back in October 2016. “And if women are objects, rather than whole human beings, it follows that Trump must deserve them.”
When Trump bragged in January 2016 that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and [he] wouldn’t lose voters,” it was met with shock. It seemed a dangerous statement, yes, but also audacious and absurd. These days, I wonder if he could rape a woman in the middle of 5th Avenue with little to no consequence.
Trump is a symptom of a larger disease, just one particularly malignant tumor in the tumor-ridden body of America.
There is a reason that Carroll chose to contextualize her encounter with Trump within a list of hideous men; a reason that she emphasized that she decided to speak out after other women kept writing to her about their stories of sexual violence for her Ask E. Jean column in Elle. Trump is a symptom of a larger disease, just one particularly malignant tumor in the tumor-ridden body of America. Trump was Carroll’s “last hideous man,” but far from her first. And as she wrote in New York Magazine, “Every woman, whether consciously or not, has a catalogue of the hideous men she’s known.”
There are hideous men everywhere. This is why calls to the RAINN hotline went up 53 percent from the week prior between Friday and Sunday. This is why one in six women report being the victim of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetimes. This is why the headlines about Very Bad Men and the Very Bad Companies and Very Bad Institutions that protect them ― or at the very least, fail to stop them ― keep coming.
But rather than despair, Kristen Houser, spokesperson for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, hopes people will acknowledge that we are still only at the beginning stages of this national reckoning. “Change is slow,” she said. “We’re not gonna see a tidal wave that is reflected in the formal systems of our culture after 18 months of awareness.”
Probably not. But what we are starting to see is a more subtle shift. Alva Johnson, who says Trump kissed her without consent while she was working on his presidential campaign in 2016, is now suing him. So is Summer Zervos, who says that Trump groped her breasts and thrust his genitals at her in 2007. Rachel Crooks, who says that Trump sexually assaulted her in an elevator in 2005, ran for Congress and has become a Me Too activist.
“I was perfectly happy never to come forward, never never never to say anything,” Carroll told New York Magazine in the wake of her story coming out. And yet, she said a lot.
Women of Carroll’s generation are reevaluating years of buried traumas — and speaking up. This matters. The country is beginning to engage in a meaningful conversation about the ways that we socialize boys and men, and the ways that a culture of toxic masculinity hurts them. That matters too.
Just because we haven’t seen a tidal wave crash, doesn’t mean that the smaller waves mean nothing.
Maybe Donald Trump will never be held accountable for his violence toward women. Maybe most of us, regardless of how credible we find Carroll’s story, and the stories of Johnson and Crooks and Zervos, and Jessica Leeds and Natasha Stoynoff and on and on, cannot create tangible consequences for this president at this moment. But perhaps we can talk about it rather than ignore it. Perhaps we can take a beat and continue with the slow work of cultural change. Perhaps we can prove to survivors, whether or not they have spoken out publicly, that their stories do matter.
As Houser said, “America’s gotta decide whether [we] care about this issue in a meaningful way.”
That’s on us.